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The Little Mermaid songwriter Alan Menken explains how to make a Disney classic

Film composer extraordinaire Alan Menken on what makes a Disney musical sing – and why The Little Mermaid’s live action remake will make such a splash

Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Disney

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid, with Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay). Image: Disney

Alan Menken is a bonafide genius. An eight-time Oscar-winner (and counting), whose movie scores and songs have soundtracked our lives. From Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tangled, Menken’s songs – written in collaboration with Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Pasek and Paul – propelled the Disney renaissance. As a new live action film of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy is released, featuring brand-new songs written by Menken with Lin Manuel Miranda, the musical maestro reveals the secrets of movie musicals and how the Disney golden age can continue… 

Why did The Little Mermaid make such a splash when it was released in 1989? 

I think there was a hunger for a true legitimate film musical. And there was a hunger for the return of Disney animation at a level that matched the early Walt stuff. Howard [Ashman] and I were two off-Broadway songwriters who came off a hit with Little Shop of Horrors.  

There was a freshness. And because it was my first score, there was a naivete that was very appealing. It directly pulled the heartstrings but in a smart, musical theatre way. Ariel was a real teenage girl who happened to be in that world. Howard was brilliant at developing characters and sharpening what they needed to be to tell the story.  

What are the key musical elements to make a classic Disney film work? 

First of all, you set the tone, the place, the time, the conditions in your opening number. It has to tell you why you are strapping into the ride. Though we don’t do this in the live-action The Little Mermaid because the audience already knows it. The original is so beloved that people will wait and wait and then it comes: Part Of Your World

Then you follow through on that with the moment where your protagonist says, “This is the journey I am on.” Howard called it the ‘I Want’ song so we continue to call it that. It’s like the invented phrase EGOT [the acronym for people who’ve won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award; Menken achieved this status in 2020] – which doesn’t really exist.  

But EGOT is not a bad phrase though… 

Well, if you have one, yeah! 

What are the other key elements for a successful Disney musical? 

You usually want to have a celebratory number within the first act. That would be Under The Sea in The Little Mermaid. In Aladdin it is Friend Like Me. In Beauty and the Beast it is Be Our Guest. Sometimes you do have to invent a new bit of story to have that moment, to make sure it lands as a musical.  

It’s like alchemy, piecing it all together… 

It is. In theatre you also need the Act One closing number that tells you where the stakes are and why you should come back after the intermission and then, when a conflict is coming to its height, you also need the ‘Eleventh Hour’ number. This is where the stakes are really high and it is now or never. In Beauty And The Beast it would be The Mob Song. It’s when the shit really hits the fan.  

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID.
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Disney

When it finally comes, Halle Bailey really gives Part Of Your World something extra… 

Halle’s performance is beautiful. What you are seeing on the screen is such a tour de force of her singing, her acting, her beautiful face and expression – plus the unbelievable cinematography and effects and orchestration. It is a combined experience and Halle, in the centre of it, is incredible. She also gives it a pop edge. That came entirely from her.  

You have collaborated with so many greats  –  from Howard Ashman to Tim Rice and now Lin Manuel Miranda… 

I knew of him when he was a little boy. That kind of crazy stuff happens – it is like it was meant to be. Lin Manuel Miranda and Bobby Lopez [Frozen songwriter, alongside Kristen Anderson-Lopez] were two boys at the same school [with Menken’s niece]. I would hear about Bobby and Lin – and they both were huge fans of what we did and do. In both cases, they are carrying on that torch. 

Lin Manuel Miranda has been a gamechanger in the way he married rap and hip-hop to musical theatre in a really innovative and smart way. He has the passion in him – the same one he had as a kid. And the same for me. All I cared about was music. I was a terrible student. My parents were really concerned because they wanted me to be a dentist like all the other men in my family. But you have to follow your passion. That is the fuel. Then you take on the skills as needed.  

How would that kid feel now? 

Oh, he would be ecstatic. The adult sitting here today knows it doesn’t make life any easier, but it certainly makes you feel like you are following your dharma, if you will, your journey. I know I am on the journey I was meant to be on – and that is a very powerful thing.  

How did your new songwriting collaboration go? 

It was a lot of fun. Any songwriting collaboration is trying something and seeing the effect. I call it the eye test. On the new song For The First Time – I gave Lin a piece of the original movie score [sings – “ba, ba-ba, ba-ba, ba, ba, la la laaaa laaaaa”]. So it’s in 6/8 time, but he said. “Can we get a two against it? So it has a real Latin edge to it?” In this song, Ariel is singing in her head about the first time on land, first time doing this or that… and by the end it is her first experience of heartbreak. In a musical every song has to progress the story. If you’re not pushing the story forward, the audience gets ahead of you really fast.  

We had to make a sort of a Sophie’s Choice with a number we wrote that Javier Bardem sang called Impossible Childhood. It is a really good song, a good moment, but it landed too heavily in a spot where we needed to move the story on. For Scuttle, I wrote a fun, Caribbean tune, and Lin rapped over it. That was amazing. The spirit of that number just tickles people.  

Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid
Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo: Disney

How important is it that this film feels part of our world – whether that is in the casting, the new songs, the reimagined story. It has to feel modern? 

It’s important to make sure that when you do something it’s fresh. Whether you make it contemporary or whether you give it another edge, or another concept is up to the writers.  

Is that how the Disney renaissance turns into an enduring golden age? 

As far as where Disney is going, animation is still evolving. It’s moving now to many different companies – but there’s always something special about the Disney brand. Something really special. Part of that is it is a safe space. And it’s very important that it remains a safe space. 

In what sense a safe space? 

Safe meaning emotionally safe and that it’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s life affirming. If it’s going to go dark, it’s going to be dark for a purpose. The purpose is never simply to scare you. We are part of an ever-evolving Disney and this movie is very much a part of that. It breaks open barriers, it challenges normal forms and reshapes them.  

The Little Mermaid is in UK cinemas from 26 May 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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